Renowned Lebanese-born, French novelist Amin Maalouf has been awarded the National Order of Merit by the French government. The 71-year-old was elevated to the title of Grand Officer, the second highest status of the merit, just one rung below the Grand Cross.
Maalouf grew up in Badaro, Beirut: he worked as the director of the daily newspaper An-Nahar until 1976, when he and his family fled to Paris.
Maalouf, who writes in French, but whose work has been translated into at least 40 languages, frequently analyses and untangles clashes between east and west in his work.
In 2016, he told The National that he prefers “to write about our past rather than the grim moments we are experiencing today”.
“There were great moments in [the Arab world’s] past, of which we may certainly be proud. I am not sure our grandchildren will be proud of our generation. All what the world is seeing today are images of violence, destruction and fear.”
Among his most celebrated works was his debut 1986 novel Leo the African, written in the form of a memoir – the plot follows the historical fictional adventures of the restless 16th-century traveller Hassan Al Wazzan, a geographer who roamed Africa. Samarkand, published in 1988, recreated the life of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam and his famous collection of poetry Rubaiyat in 11th-century Persia.
His non-fiction work includes 1983’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, a look at how the turbulent period affected Arab and Islamic societies. On Identity, published in 1998, tackles the concept of “them” versus “us”.
In 2016, he won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Cultural Personality of the Year at the Abu Dhabi book fair. The award comes with a prize of Dh1 million ($272,000). The award said he was given the honour because he had “conveyed in French some key moments in the history of Arab and other Eastern peoples to the entire world.”
Last year, the UAE’s seven-day book challenge saw key figures from the Emirates share the books that have shaped their lives. As part of it, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, chose Maalouf’s Leo The African.
What is the National Order of Merit?
Established in 1963, the honour rewards “distinguished merit”, and those who “represent the civic spirit of France”. An official statement says it honours “acts of devotion, bravery, generosity, real merit or a measurable commitment to serving others or France, with qualifications not yet sufficient to warrant the Legion of Honour.”
Every year, a maximum of 5,000 people can receive the insignia: the medal is a six-armed Maltese asterisk enamelled blue, suspended from a silver wreath. There are two tricolor flags flying in the middle of the medal.
Past notable recipients include French citizens Charles Aznavour, Gerard Depardieu, Isabelle Huppert and Jacques Cousteau. Non-French citizens honoured by France include Mohammad-Reza Sharjarian, Sivaji Ganesan, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall and Dutch, Danish, Nepalese and Spanish royal family members.